The Looming Spectre: Addressing the long war with PTSD

Charlie Haughey photography.
Charlie Haughey photography.

This is a guest post from a friend I served with. 

I’m writing this and sending it to a man that I respect. I’ve known Don a while now, but there is distance between us.  We haven’t been face to face in over ten years. That’s why I feel safe sending this to him. While I have a loving wife and family, great friends, and mentors that would understand, I am too embarrassed to discuss this with them. Call me a coward, but some would say I’m a brave man based on things in my past.

I have PTSD and I thought that it would go away if I ignored it. To be honest, I thought it did for a while.

I’ve done two deployments; one really good one, and one really bad one. The first one set me up to think I knew how the second would play out, and I was wrong. My unit struggled from the beginning and sustained regular casualties. I was the Company 1SG and felt enormous pressure to stop the bad things from happening. I didn’t want my boys hiding in the COP, but I didn’t want them to keep getting killed either. Two incidents stand out in my mind regularly.

My company was sitting in a patrol base and the tell-tale stream of smoke indicating an IED, sprang up from the orchard. I knew that we had no forces there, and that it had to be a local national that set it off. I gathered a squad-plus and moved out there to engage the populace and see if we could help. As we rounded the corner, four or five women were on the ground in their burkhas, wailing in the manner only women from there can wail. A man walks out from around the mud wall separating the orchard from the homes and has a plastic sack in his hand and an angry look on his face. I glanced at the bag (you know how they are kind of translucent) and saw random body parts from a girl no more than eight, sticking out at rakish angles. A hand, a leg with a foot attached. My translator told me the angry man was blaming us for this; I tried to explain that we didn’t put the bombs in the ground.

A second man comes around the corner holding the little girls severed head up by her hair. He just stood there, holding it up above shoulder level, looking at us. I was stuck. I just looked into that little girls eyes. They were blue. We left.

Another incident that I think of regularly was a catastrophic IED that struck one of my vehicles. Seven of my soldiers were killed in that blast. I arrived on the scene to conduct CASEVAC operations and spent the remainder of that day cleaning up the site and recovering the vehicle. Placing the remains of my boys in body bags, not knowing what parts belonged to whom, was a difficult task.

At one point we ran out of body bags and had to use trash bags.

I still don’t know how to feel about that. Once during the course of the event, I thought to myself that if I just stepped on an IED that this would be all over for me and I wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore. I shook that off and immediately chastised myself as being selfish and weak. I was a leader and the job needed to get done. I had to galvanize the company into action. I told myself to be the example and try to look like it didn’t bother me.

During that deployment I went home on leave. There were inklings of problems even during those two weeks at home. I had little patience and my emotions were all over the place. I can only imagine how my wife felt.

Since coming home (it’s been three years) I’ve actually been to counseling for anger management.

I’m still adjusting. I had a violent incident with a stranger at a casino. I had an incident at work that involved a physical altercation with one of my peers. That’s when my boss and my wife recommended I go see someone. Seeking help was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Doing it gave me the false sense of security that goes with thinking that I was cured.

I’m at an Army school now and things have slowed down. I’ve took on lots of things to keep me busy. I’m taking two college classes in the evenings and I quit using smokeless tobacco. I’m trying to stay in shape to try out for a selection in November. I’m trying to restore an old car in my driveway. I think that I’ve tried to take on all these things to keep my mind off of the past.

It isn’t working. It’s coming back. The sadness. The anger. All of it.

I can’t sleep. I’m writing this thing. I’m embarrassed. I’m worried that it will affect my performance and my career. I’m worried that it will negatively affect my family. I got up at five-thirty this morning and ran three miles. My eyes got misty during the run. Little things set me off. My treadmill broke, my bike wouldn’t start, the transmission leaks on my car… I throw things in the garage. The random violence is coming back. I know I’m feeling sorry for myself and it makes me angry. I’ve lots of reasons to be happy.

I don’t want to be like this. I want to be happy. I want my wife to be happy. I want to be positive about the future. I know I can be successful; I have been my whole career. I should be able to smash this.

My point is that it never goes away. Keep the pity. You have to deal with it all the time. I don’t want sympathy.

What I want is for the guys out there that know they have it, but refuse to get treatment, to know that if they don’t, it will get worse. You are going to have it forever. There are coping mechanisms available. I can see the anger coming now. I know how to physically and emotionally stop and deal with it.

Those of you reading this, I don’t have a specific reaction that I’m trying to get from you. I’m not trying to change your mind about anything.  Do what you want and think what you want. This just made me feel a little better.

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